Documentary Explores Street Sense Experience
How well do you know what Street Sense does for its vendors and for the community? Probably not as much as you think you do.
A new documentary tells the story of Street Sense through the eyes of vendor Eric Thompson-Bey. Along the way, the film tries to dispel common misperceptions about the paper, humanize the vendor experience, and celebrate the lasting relationships that have formed between vendors and their supporters.
“I want something different in life,” Thompson-Bey says in the film’s opening scenes. “And what keeps me focused is selling papers.”
The film follows Thompson-Bey for several weeks as he writes an article about what he calls the Code of Conduct. After attending a weekly writer’s workshop, Thompson-Bey spends the next few days writing in a small basement room he rents out from a friend. “I get my best thoughts when I’m by myself, with my music playing, and I can sit down and I can think,” he says. “I put a lot of work into my articles.”
Thompson-Bey had a difficult childhood. “I never knew my mom. My mom got murdered in 1968. Out of eight brothers and sisters, there’s only four of us left. I was raised by my father until I was nine, and he passed in 1976. My sister took me in, and that’s when my life changed. I really had no guidance after that, and I had no structure and no discipline.”
The six-minute film took four months to produce and drew on the talents of nearly 20 volunteers, who shot the footage, conducted the interviews, and edited the final film. The documentary was produced by Stone Soup Films, which creates and donates films to nonprofit organizations that can’t otherwise afford to publicize their work through film. The film debuted at Street Sense’s 10th anniversary gala in September.
“We were really thrilled to be able to partner with Street Sense to pull back the layers of what the paper is really about,” says Liz Norton, executive director and founder of Stone Soup Films and producer of the film. “The paper is run by wonderful people who gracefully deal with the most marginalized members of our city and provide an incredible resource to help them get on their feet.
“Getting to know Eric has been a privilege,” Norton continues. “He has had a huge impact on me and the other volunteers who worked on the film by just being honest and open about his extremely difficult life. It just proves that breaking down the barriers between the housed and the homeless is a profound and important goal. Eric is a remarkable, resilient, funny and wonderful man, and I’m so proud that the film gives people a sense of that. We just simply cannot treat the homeless like they are invisible.”
Thompson-Bey says the film helped to boost his confidence, and he describes what it was like to work on the project:
I can remember when I was first approached by Rebecca Stewart, former director of marketing & communications for Street Sense, about being a spokesman and doing a documentary for Street Sense with Stone Soup Films. I asked her, “why did you pick me?” She spoke of me having good character and a code of conduct. The thought of me representing our paper was tremendous.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Liz Norton, founder of Stone Soup Films. She wanted to film me at our writer’s group. This would be our first filming. When the day came I was so nervous. Liz spoke to me before we started filming; she told me to be myself, and act as if there’s no camera. Once the camera started to roll, I just stayed focused on what was going on with the group, and I was fine. That first filming really helped break the ice for me.
What I enjoyed most about doing the documentary was being filmed while I was out selling papers. I thought that it would give the people who watch the documentary, the ones who really don’t know about Street Sense, the opportunity to see how we vendors relate to our readers, supporters, and the community. Hopefully, the will become Street Sense supporters, too.
The interview that Liz did with me was the most emotional part of the whole documentary. She told me that she would be asking some personal questions and that I didn’t have to answer if I didn’t want to. When talking about my parents during the interview, a lot of emotions came out. I almost cried. But it gave me a chance to let people know a little more about me. That was the special part of doing the documentary, because I really shared a lot of personal things.
The documentary is one of the most positive things that I’ve had a chance to do. I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it. I met some really good people during that time. Liz and the other volunteers from Stone Soup Films, including Linda Wang, Megan Orr, and Greg Walsh, were all so good to me and made me feel so comfortable.
But I have to say that the best part of the whole experience was when the film was shown at Street Sense’s 10th anniversary gala. At the end, I cried. And when I turned and saw Liz, she gave me a big hug.
The film concludes with Thompson-Bey heading home after he finishes selling papers for the day. “Get to know what I’m trying to do, get to know about the paper,” he says. “If you only knew how much this paper helped me … it’s my job.”
To watch the documentary, visit: http://www.stonesoupfilms.org/film/street-sense/